15 Pentecost C; September 18, 2022
Text Study for Luke 16 1 to 13
15 Pentecost C…September 18, 2022
Let’s begin with textual and contextual matters. It is critical for interpretation to see just how intimately connected this text is with what precedes. That is certainly the case in terms of vocabulary. The household manager is accused of “squandering” the boss’s wealth, just as the younger son “squandered” his newly-acquired inheritance. There is the sense in both cases that the characters are dissipating wealth and property which don’t really belong to them. That’s instructive in reading both parables.
There is a moment of reckoning for the protagonists in many of the parables in this section of the Lukan account. For our dishonest manager, that is a literal moment of reckoning. “Get your accounts in order,” the boss says. “You’re done here.” The younger son has a reckoning which is more of a personal epiphany. In the following text, the rich man has a reckoning as well. But that moment of epiphany comes too late to do him any good.
The moment of reckoning, in several cases in the Lukan account, comes with an internal dialogue on the part of the protagonist. That’s a feature of the Lukan account, and we’ll revisit that issue in more detail as we go along. The internal dialogue for our main character this week involves a realistic and complex calculation about how to survive his employment catastrophe. This might give us a hint, in retrospect, about the character of the internal dialogue of the younger son. It seems likely that the son’s internal dialogue is also a matter of practical calculation rather than of remorse and repentance.
The dishonest manager is far more practical and resourceful than the younger son. He knows he’s not cut out for digging ditches. He’s too proud to sit along the road with a begging bowl and cloak. He makes an honest evaluation of his resources and preferences. Could we say that the dishonest manager “counts the costs”? After all, that is his real job in the household and likely what he’s best at. He makes a plan to ensure a soft landing once he’s been tossed out on his ear. If only the younger son had been equipped with such strategic foresight.
The plan is to accumulate allies in advance – those who are beholden to the manager for their good financial fortune. The dishonest manager is looking for people who will welcome him into their homes when the need arises. What, if anything, does this have to do with the complaint that Jesus “welcomes” (same verb) sinners and eats with them? I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that Jesus is partying with tax collectors – those who end up with the property of others and who have a sharp accountant’s pencil always to hand.
It’s interesting that the Lukan author doesn’t employ the “rule of three” in this particular joke. Therefore, we can reasonably expect that the dishonest manager dealt the same way with each debtor. There was no narrative twist in a third example. This is how he behaved with “each” of his lord’s debtors.
We’re not dealing with impoverished people in this story. Jesus tells it to his disciples, rather than to the crowds in general (verse one). But this is a story about people of means – the sort of people represented by the Lukan addressee, Theophilus. A discount of fifty baths of oil would amount to some four hundred gallons. This would be the annual production of about four hundred olive trees.
A discount of twenty koroi of wheat would be around two hundred bushels (about twelve hundred pounds). Oil and wheat are semi-luxury items for the impoverished in the first-century Mediterranean. Poor people would eat barley and scrimp on the oil. The average imperial citizen might use a quarter cup of oil per day and consume up to a pound of wheat per day, if they had it. So, we’re talking about oil and grain merchants in this text, not retail consumers.
Greek has lots of words for “thinking.” The one at play in our text is “phronimos,” which has to do with practical and public intelligence. This is the intelligence that helps you get along in the community, not the intelligence that helps you read Aristotle. The dishonest manager was a sharp operator, a cunning manager. And the boss praises the manager for his street smarts.
The word the NRSV translates as “master” is the Greek word, “kyrios.” It can certainly mean “master.” But any Christian listening to the Lukan account would hear the double entendre here. The listeners would have to wonder just what the connection of this parable is to following their “master,” Jesus – whom they call “Lord.” I think translations ought to maintain this tension rather than resolving it by using “master.”
Yet, it’s clear that the “lord” in the parable is not the same as the “Lord” who is telling the story. The lord in the parable regards the manager as shrewd, crafty, and a sharp dealer. Jesus is the one who labels the manager as “unjust” or “unrighteous” (Greek = adikios).
When we get to verse eight, we need to wonder when the parable actually ends. Many commentators would put the end of the parable in the middle of verse 8. They would see the second half of the verse as the beginning of either Jesus’ commentary on the story or the Lukan interpretation of the parable. In either case, the words of interpretation are addressed to the disciples. They are the ones told to make friends with unjust mammon in order to have a soft-landing spot among the children of this age.
Now, Jesus, which way is it? On the one hand, disciples are to make friends with unjust mammon as a survival strategy in a difficult world. On the other hand, disciples cannot serve both God and mammon. Serving God means hating and despising mammon. If we recall some previous work on “hating,” we can get through this one. Disciples may well be able to use unjust mammon for short term tactics. But we must beware that possessions do not take possession of us. That, of course, will take us to the parable that follows.
If, as a disciple, I’m not trustworthy enough to balance my management of stuff and my devotion to God, then how will I handle the deep mysteries of God’s reign? That’s the upshot of the discussion of small matters and large matters. I’m not sure the NRSV extrapolation in verse eleven is all that helpful. The Greek doesn’t point to “true riches.” Rather, the verse points to that which is true. This is about more than faithful property management.
A stewardship chord is struck in verse twelve. The question is not about how we deal with the stuff that belongs to us. The question for disciples is how we are dealing with what belongs to another. That is manifestly the case in the story of the dishonest manager. It is covertly the case in the parable of the two sons. The property never really gets separated from the father. Neither the younger son nor the dishonest manager has dealt faithfully with the property of another. Will we as disciples do a better job?
It’s not clear that the household manager is an enslaved person. That may be the assumption of the parable. However, the word for “slave” is not used in the parable. The manager may be a free person who is employed as a manager. Or the manager may be a freed person who is bound to the boss by previous condition of servitude. Or the manager may be a household enslaved person.
The last seems the least likely since the manager is going to be cast out to fend for himself. An enslaved person caught with his hand in the till might lose the hand rather than his job. An enslaved person probably wouldn’t need to know what he was going to do as a result of his loss of position. That fate would be determined for him. Again, the social situation is that of someone who can determine his own destiny at least to some degree.
The lectionary doesn’t deal with verses fourteen through eighteen. We may be able to spend some time on those verses before we’re finished with this section. But for now, we can wonder how it all fits together. Perhaps the Pharisees – whom the Lukan author describes literally as “friends of silver” – are the models of those who have learned how to make friends with unrighteous mammon. But perhaps that friendship has turned into servitude.
While it may not be clear to some readers, it strikes me that the issue in these verses is the ways in which the religious leaders have cozied up to the structures of wealth and power around them. They have accommodated to the commercial system and been rewarded. They have accommodated to the political realities of life under Herod Antipas rather than pay for their resistance with their heads, like John the Baptist. Jesus calls out Antipas’ adultery in his current marriage, even if the Pharisees will not.
Just as a side note, if verse eighteen is a swipe at Herod Antipas, the rich man in the following parable may be a parody of the Galilean ruler as well. That puts an interesting twist on that parable, but that’s a conversation for the next set of posts.